The Utah of the Middle East

SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ — When I first saw the city of Suleimaniya, in Northern Iraq, during daylight I was startled. Out my hotel room window was a straight street, the first such street I had seen in almost half a year. That probably doesn’t sound like a big deal. And it isn’t. But it threw me for a second. There aren’t many right angles and straight lines in the East. Those few that exist are as striking as snow in the tropics for people like me who are used to disorienting and chaotic urban environments.
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Suleimaniya isn’t North America even if it reminded me of home for a brief moment. And the only thing out my window that really looked Western was the straight street. Nothing else did. But the longer I stayed in the city the more like home I decided it was.
Iraqi Kurds build parks in residential areas filled with single-family homes, something completely unheard of in Beirut and Cairo where everyone lives in apartment towers and there is almost no green space at all. I prefer dense urban environments to suburbs, and I always have. But there was something oddly refreshing about the layout of Suleimaniya. I couldn’t stop thinking that it was the Utah of the Middle East.
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I met an Kurdish Iraqi couple in Suli who lived for a while in the United States. Ras Rasool is a teacher. Her husband Shwan Zring is an engineer and a member of the Iraqi National Congress. They both came back to Iraq to help rebuild after Saddam’s regime was demolished. Utah was the first place they landed when they arrived in the States. They stayed there for seven months. When I said “Suli looks to me like the Utah of the Middle East” they both burst out laughing. “That’s exactly what we think as well,” Shwan said.
Utah (at least the urban part) bores me. And I get a kick out of Beirut (the Paris of the Middle East). But Suli is relaxing. Suli is calm. Suli is weirdly prosperous, tidy, and suburban considering which country it’s in.
Somewhere around 800,000 people live in the city today. Three years ago only half as many lived there. Like any city that undergoes rapid urban migration, most of the newcomers live on the outskirts. Unlike in most Third World cities, the people who live on the outskirts don’t live in shanties or slums. Their part of the city is actually more prosperous than the old urban core.
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I’m not cherry-picking these photos. I spent almost a week in the city. Every neighborhood I saw, from one end of Suleimaniya to the other, looked either lower middle-class or amazingly wealthy.
Some Kurds are returning home from the diaspora loaded with cash. Others are making money off the surging economy. Iraqi Kurds who remain in the West remit money back to family members who never left.
Real poverty, of the grinding Third World variety, did not appear to exist. If it does exist, it is very well hidden, at least in the cities. (The countryside is still primitive.)
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Downtown is compact. There is no skyline. It has the look and feel of a tiny city or a very large town.
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It’s modern, for the most part. I was told the city is only 220 years old, which makes it just a squawling infant compared with ancient Erbil, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Damascus. But it still looks and feels like the East in some places. Downtown still has its grand bazaar, its outdoor markets, and its traditional Kurdish cultural flavor.
Suli Bazaar.jpg
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A lot of Iraqi Kurds want to leap out of the old Middle East and join the global economy. They actually want McDonalds to move there and open up “restaurants.” Even liberal intellectuals yearn for Starbucks and KFC. The Western part of the global economy has much more to offer the world than these kind of places, but the corporate chains are too skittish to move there. So the Kurds don’t even get KFC.
A few of them, though, have decided to just rip off the corporate American chains and build their own pirated versions. The fake “Sheraton” in Erbil isn’t the only knock-off around. There are two separate bogus McDonalds “restaurants” — one called MaDonal, the other Miran — that blatantly steal the Golden Arches logo and design. Everyone I asked said the food at both fake McDonalds’ is hideous. That’s one reason why they want the real deal. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that real McDonald’s food isn’t very good either.
One enterprising Iraqi opened a copycat “Domino’s Pizza.” He stole the name as well as the logo. He also downloaded a picture of a real Domino’s Pizza in North America, printed it out on his computer, and framed it on the wall.
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For better or for worse, Starbucks wouldn’t look at all out of place in most of the new developments in the shiny glass modern ring around the city.
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One of the downsides to all this explosive new construction, at least from an architectural point of view, is that many of the new houses and buildings don’t make any design sense. Below is the Suleimaniya Library. It’s not an ugly building. It certainly beats Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian detritus that still clutters up much of the landscape. But the architect can’t decide if his building is modern or classical, and the fusion of the two does not really work.
Suli Library.jpg
It’s a petty complaint, though, I know. Meaningless, in fact, when you think about what these people have been through the last couple of decades.
There are some serious complaints about the way things are progressing. I met Dana Qashani, an Iraqi Kurd who lived and worked for a while as an urban planner of sorts in Britain. He says Suleimaniya is in worse shape now than it was three years ago: Automobile pollution has gone up with the increased prosperity. There is no urban planning to speak of. The city is expanding so fast there aren’t even any maps that detail it. (Saddam Hussein banned maps anyway, though, so I suppose they’re used to that.) The local government is crazily thinking of putting up skyscrapers before they bother installing a sewage system. There are so many new roads under construction at all times the city has become a nightmare of detours. (I can attest to that one myself.) Some of the construction firms are a bit dodgy, and there is nothing to guarantee that what was built yesterday won’t collapse on the new owner’s heads in two weeks.
Considering that some cities in Iraq are still exploding, it was hard for me to get too bent out of shape about development problems. Look at all the glass in Iraqi Kurdistan. Who in their right mind would build a city that looks like this if they weren’t sure car bombs, rockets, and bullets are a thing of the past?
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Postscript: Don’t forget to hit my tip jar! Would you know Northern Iraq looked like this if I didn’t go there with my camera and bring back these pictures?
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